How do most people get warnings about emergencies? Social media

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People living near petrochemical plants and industrial facilities are more likely to be exposed to harmful levels of pollution. This risk is even greater during disasters such as leaks, spills and fires. Because of this it is crucial that people living near such facilities are warned during an emergency so they can take the necessary steps to ensure their health and safety. However, although the need for warning systems is well understood, little research has assessed the effectiveness of warning systems after a disaster.

Garett Sansom, research assistant professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at the Texas A&M University School of Public Health, recently set out to explore this area. In a new study published in the journal Environmental Justice, Sansom and colleagues surveyed residents of the Houston-area city of Deer Park, Texas, after the March 2019 fire and chemical leak at the ITC petrochemical facility. The study’s goals were to examine what ways the city’s residents received emergency warnings after the disaster, determine how willing people were to follow official instructions and explore what role the source of information had in deciding to follow instructions.

The ITC fire of March 2019 was a disaster that affected many communities in the Houston area. Storage tanks containing hazardous chemicals like naptha, toluene and benzene caught fire, sending a plume of smoke skyward. Communities around the facility issued shelter-in-place warnings, instructing residents to stay inside due to high levels of pollutants in the air. Multiple warnings were issued by authorities in Deer Park and other cities for several days until the disaster was contained. Deer Park uses several methods for notifying residents of emergencies, including outdoor warning sirens, social media, traditional media like radio and television and an emergency alert system known as CodeRED.

To find out more about how Deer Park residents found out about warnings and followed instructions, the research team surveyed homes throughout the city and interviewed residents with the help of community groups. The researchers asked about how residents received warnings, if they chose to follow shelter-in-place orders and other factors such as how long they have lived in the community, their experience with similar events and their perceptions of risks due to living near petrochemical facilities.

Sansom and colleagues found that more than one-quarter of the residents surveyed had received no warnings at all. The outdoor sirens were the least effective means of alerting residents. Many stated that they could not hear the outdoor warning sirens or did not pay attention to them because they thought it was a test.

More than 45 percent of residents found out about the shelter-in-place order through social media.

Television news stations were in second place at around 35 percent.

Radio and the CodeRED system both accounted for about 20 percent of the residents each, and an additional 20 percent of surveyed residents said they found out about the emergency from friends and family.

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